Security for Afghanistan's new voters next priority

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2004, 12:00am

Against all expectations and despite a steady stream of violence against those who register to vote, Afghanistan's citizens have turned out in droves to sign up for October's presidential poll.

So far nearly 9 million have registered - or about 90 per cent of those thought eligible. About four in 10 have been women.

It is a development that bodes well for a country still struggling to overcome decades of war and the oppressive legacy of the Taleban regime that was in place until only two years ago.

The last election took place in 1969 and there has never been an election for the country's top post. There are still many hurdles to be overcome, but the country has demonstrated it has one of the basic ingredients necessary for a successful election - widespread commitment to the democratic process.

Getting voters to register may well prove to be the easy part. The next priority will have to be providing enough security for campaigning and polling to take place. This is still in question at a time when aid groups, most recently Medicins sans Frontieres and the United Nations refugee agency, are quitting the country or reducing their presence out of concern for the safety of their staff.

Threats against those who take part in the transitional government or the one to be formed have become a fixture.

Nato has 6,500 troops in Afghanistan now and has committed nearly 2,000 more for eight weeks around the election. But of the 20,000 or so coalition troops now in the country, mostly chasing remnant Taleban fighters, it has not been made clear whether any of them will be available for election duties. Most observers believe the commitment so far is woefully insufficient.

The other challenge is one that has been there since the Taleban was ousted and current president Hamid Karzai was put in place: curbing the power of unelected regional warlords and disarming their militia.

This is the road that Mr Karzai seems to have chosen with his recent decision to drop Mohammed Quassim Fahim as his vice-presidential running mate. The latter has refused to disband his militia, which at 50,000 is bigger than the country's army and police force combined.

It was a brave move, but other warlords still sit in Mr Karzai's cabinet and he will have to follow through with even more decisive action.

Because a fractured opposition is rallying behind more than 20 other candidates, Mr Karzai stands a good chance of winning in October.

Now that the Afghan public has put its faith in the upcoming votes - another one will be held for parliament in the spring - the world has a responsibility to see that they are free and fair. Primarily, this means more help in the realm of security and it means support for those politicians brave enough to take a stand against the warlords.